All posts by Sara


Sara is big into reading and writing fiction like it's her job, because it is. That doesn't mean she isn't real as it gets. She loves real stuff like polka dots, indie rock, and underground fight clubs. I may have made some of that up. I don't know her that well. You can tell she didn't just write this in the third person because if she had written it there would have been less suspect sentence construction.

TRACK MARKS: “Most of the Time” by Bob Dylan

You may have heard a little announcement out of Stockholm recently: Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, the first American to do so since 1993 and the first musician ever so honored. It was, to say the least, a controversial choice among the literati. As a writer and avid reader of fiction, I sympathize with the complaints that awarding a literary prize to someone like Dylan robs an actual author, often one whose name is hardly known in the U.S., of a well-deserved boost in sales and recognition. And as someone who strives to read poetry more regularly, I understand the necessity of interrogating whether someone who is known primarily as a lyricist can or should be considered a writer of verse in the same way laureates like Szymborska and Heaney are. And as a woman who has experienced her share of man-splaining, I nodded my head at the annoyance that rippled through many Twitter feeds that perhaps the ultimate white male artiste beloved by every pretentious dickhead who ever picked up a guitar received an award of this magnitude and prestige.

And yet.
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The Best 30 Rock Episodes: A Chronological Journey, Part Two

Hold on! Before reading this, make sure you’ve caught up with yesterday’s kickoff. Now, wave like a human being!

Liz Waves
Season 4, Episode 7: “Dealbreakers Talk Show #0001”
30 Rock’s ensemble cast began to sprawl out as the show went on, serving some characters better than others. In the first few seasons Jenna Maroney played an integral role as Liz’s best friend and working nightmare, the grotesquely narcissistic star of TGS who still made time to give her friend terrible life advice. But as Liz and Jack’s corporate relationship grew more personal, Jenna was often shunted into B and C stories; as her craziness became more outsized her position as Liz’s friend became more precarious. This is not to suggest Jane Krakowski doesn’t give everything she gets her all. But it does seem a bit of a shame in retrospect, especially when her presence can lift an entire episode into greatness, as it does with “Dealbreakers.” The early portion of season four introduced a new arc for Liz as she publishes a bestseller based on a catchphrase of one of Jenna’s TGS characters, but in another example of 30 Rock mocking the expectations of serialized stories (or, less charitably, losing interest in them), Liz’s shot at starring in a show based on the book is short-lived. After a disastrously hilarious shoot during which Liz turns into a bizarre marionette-approximation of a human (“Remember waving?” Pete yells helplessly) she locks herself in her dressing room and refuses to come out, just as Jenna often does, leading Jack to seek her counsel. This whole episode is about the fluidity of character traits; in Liz’s absence from the writer’s room, Frank, another supporting cast member I’ve yet to mention, steps into her role as den mother, scolding his colleagues and dressing in frumpy sweaters. It wouldn’t work if we didn’t know all these characters so well by now; by episode’s end the reset button has been hit but it’s still a jolt to a series that was starting to show its limits.
Continue reading The Best 30 Rock Episodes: A Chronological Journey, Part Two

The Best 30 Rock Episodes: A Chronological Journey, Part One

Ten years ago this month a much-hyped new series premiered on NBC. Marketed as a rollicking satire of a very recognizable late-night sketch comedy show it boasted a starry cast and a strong TV auteur behind the scenes. It was Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and it tanked, hard. Its earnest investment in the trivial backstage drama of its characters, along with a tenuous grasp of what makes for good, or at least believable, comedy, doomed it to the cancellation bin after one season.

It’s odd now in hindsight to remember just how much of an underdog 30 Rock was when it debuted on the same network and in the same month as Studio 60. The brainchild of Tina Fey and based on her tenure as head writer of Saturday Night Live, the pedigree was more untested and it shows in the first several episodes. But voice and vision are paramount in a comedy and, at a time when NBC was struggling to find itself post Must-See-TV-Thursday, Fey and company stood out: the jokes were quick to the point of weaponization, often literally coming a second at a time, with a commitment to character beats as strong as to the outright bizarre set-piece. It also benefitted from a dynamite central pairing with Fey as the biographical-to-a-point Liz Lemon and Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy, her right-wing blowhard of a boss and singular comic creation. Even in the sloppily paced pilot their scenes have a spark that carried over seven seasons and remained reliable whenever the storytelling faltered over the 138 episodes that eventually ran. Ten years on, in the midst of so much “peak TV,” no currently airing comedy quite comes close to its alchemical mix of breakneck zaniness and reluctant heart, though Fey’s own Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt does its gosh-darndest. For a show that often worked deliberately against the serialization trend, 30 Rock amply rewards re-visiting and here are the fifteen best episodes to get you started, whether it’s your first time through or your thirtieth.
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The Disastrous and the Unpalatable: Yesterday’s Headlines and Tomorrow’s Political Films

For those who seek comfort and clarity in pop culture during uncertain times, 2016 has already been a tough year. The immense losses of Bowie and Prince sent immediate ripples of grief through the music world, while Rage Against the Machine regrouped in an act of real-time protest to Trump’s candidacy. Over in TV land Orange is the New Black fans are still reeling from how miscarriages of justice in the modern for-profit prison system manifested in the show. Film, though, by dint of its longer development and production periods, often aligns with politics by (un)happy accidents rather than deliberate planning. (Selma, to take one recent example, would have been an acclaimed biopic of MLK regardless of its timing; that it came out at a time of increased racial tensions in America made it an inadvertent touchstone for activists both online and on the ground.) It remains to be seen how long it will be before the aftershocks of the 2016 presidential race are felt in the medium. But, as the old saw goes, history’s usually repeating itself and, as someone who’ll take almost any excuse to fill in some of the gaps of my movie knowledge, I decided to see what, if anything, a few classics from the past could impart about our sorry present.

My journey began with the film I was most embarrassed about not having seen before: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which came out in the banner cinematic year of 1939. I had a passing familiarity with the famous filibuster scene and director Frank Capra’s other work, which led me to believe I’d be in for a pleasant, uplifting film about the power of government. However, the opening literal game of telephone amongst a group of venal senators laid that immediately to rest. It seems the chambers have always been a haven for corrupt, backbiting men, an insinuation that was not lost on the forty-five senators invited to the film’s premiere. Despite a sequence featuring a vaguely jingoistic tour through D.C.’s iconic landmarks, this is not a city where innocence escapes unscathed.

For those in need of a quick plot refresher: Jimmy Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, head of a Boy Scouts-esque group, brought in to fill a vacant seat as a coin-flipped compromise, his wholesome image pleasing to one side of the aisle and his potential to be manipulated pleasing the other. Smith is advised to introduce a land bill to build a national boys’ camp but, unbeknownst to him, the land he’s chosen has already been earmarked for a dam-building graft scheme. To his shame and frustration, the senators he thought supported him begin doing everything in their power to smear and vilify him until he’s forced to filibuster for 24 hours to stay a vote for his expulsion. If it all sounds a bit convoluted, that seems to be part of Capra’s point about how the immoral interests of a few can poison the whole well. Smith’s speech is inspiring to watch, his refusal to yield to repeated requests acting as a comical rebuke to petty bureaucracy. It’s also genuinely draining; he collapses immediately after a suicidal senator bursts into the chamber to confess his guilt and the film ends while Smith is being carried away, having exhausted itself along with its hero. Integrity, Capra’s film insists, is the responsibility of the individual, not the body, particularly a political one. In the early years of World War II this message was understandably inspiring; many theatres in Vichy France reportedly chose Washington as the last American film screened before a Nazi-imposed ban went into effect. These days though, when the Senate is more often a site of intense partisan gridlock, it’s usually the loudest and least helpful voices that end up breaking through.
Mr Smith
Indeed, a mere thirty-three years later the potential of the individual to enact change was already less assured. The Candidate, starring Robert Redford as an idealistic lawyer drafted into what’s expected to be a futile Senate run, was released in 1972, the same year as the disastrous Democratic Convention that George McGovern would eventually win on his way to a sound defeat in the general courtesy of incumbent Richard Nixon. Hunter S. Thompson immortalized that debacle in literature and the film captures, albeit with clearer, less drug-addled eyes, some of that same madness. The casting of Redford at the height of his golden-boy years is a stroke of genius and the manpower behind the scenes helps add to the authenticity; it was written by Jeremy Larner, who had worked as a speechwriter for Eugene McCarthy during his presidential campaign.

The film opens as a defeated politician gives a speech to his disappointed supporters. “Hell of a nice guy,” says one political strategist to another. The response? “He never had a chance.” This declaration is made by Marvin Lucas (played by Peter Boyle) and his resigned cynicism pervades the story that follows: Democrat Bill McKay (Redford), the son of a famous governor, is convinced by Lucas to run against a Republican incumbent believed to be unbeatable. Since he’s all but guaranteed to lose, McKay is told he can run his campaign as he likes and he jumps at the chance to spread his progressive values to the masses. When it becomes clear he’ll be demolished in the election to an embarrassing degree, however, he’s advised to tone down his message and broaden his appeal, only to find that the more he sells out, the higher his poll numbers climb. So much for honor, then. The end of the film mirrors the beginning except now we have a victory, for someone fully unprepared for what lies ahead of him. “What do we do now?” McKay asks Lucas before he’s dragged out of a hotel room by voters to celebrate, the camera lingering on the empty space he leaves behind before fading to the credits. Even four years ago the idea that a man, running solely on name recognition could be elected with such a generic platform was comical; what makes it chilling for a modern viewer is the implicit suggestion that the public ultimately doesn’t care as long as it’s backed a winner.

One of The Candidate’s most hilarious scenes shows McKay meeting Natalie Wood (in a cameo whose self-awareness seems questionable) at a campaign event. Rather than talk policy with the celebrity, he listens agreeably while she proceeds to recommend he put fresh fruit in his yogurt. Redford, though, was one of the most politically conscious movie stars of the era and four years later he would be instrumental in the making of All the President’s Men. The story of two reporters helping to dismantle the Nixon administration is public knowledge, of course, and has since permeated the cultural landscape in ways that can make it difficult for modern viewers to take seriously; my first real exposure to Watergate was via the 1999 satirical film Dick, the preening performance of Bruce McCulloch as Bernstein making Dustin Hoffman’s rakish interpretation retroactively comical. Yet there’s something invigorating in how earnestly the film prizes journalistic integrity in times of political corruption. The poster tagline proclaimed it “the most devastating detective story of the century,” and in many ways it is, though one that glorifies the nuts and bolts of such procedural work rather than the actual solution.

The film opens in media res, with the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters already in progress. Woodward (played by Redford) is still getting his sea legs at the Washington Post and is put on the case, which is believed to be of minor importance; instead it’s the first domino that ends up toppling a presidency. You know where it goes from here: at the behest of their editor and with the assistance of secret source Deep Throat, Woodward and Bernstein dig around, eventually connecting the five men arrested at the hotel with the Committee to Re-Elect the President (also known by its apt acronym CREEP) to Chief of Staff Haldeman all the way to Nixon himself. It’s a foregone conclusion but director Alan J. Pakula and screenwriter William Goldman smartly emphasize what the two reporters were up against at every turn. The D.C. they occupy is a shadowy place, seemingly without daylight; even when in their element on the newsroom floor they’re often dwarfed by their surroundings. The film pointedly ends before their work is even complete: in the final shot Nixon is being sworn in for his second term on a television while Woodward and Bernstein clack away on their typewriters nearby. A montage of teletype headlines preserves the rest for posterity. It’s a modest conclusion but then their reputations are already assured just by dint of being subjects of a movie. Still it’s heartening in this modern age to be reminded of the media’s potential to serve the greater good.

This (relative) positivity stands in stark contrast to the final film I watched, Medium Cool, which came out in 1969 during one of the most tumultuous periods in recent American history. It too takes the media as its focus though it centers on television rather than print, a medium whose potential to influence the general public was only just beginning to emerge. The film takes its title from Marshall McLuhan who wrote that the “cooler” the medium, “the more someone has to uncover and engage in the media” in order to “fill in the blanks.” Though its view of its subject is suspicious, even hostile, it’s also alive with the possibilities of cinema. Director Haskell Wexler mixes documentary style footage with his fictional story, capturing the anxieties and fears of his era in real time.
Dick Woodward
Ostensibly the film is about a cameraman for a news station (played by the brutishly charismatic Robert Forster) and his various personal and professional exploits but that’s really just an inroad to the sociopolitical commentary on the 1960’s last gasps. The parallels to 2016 are numerous and striking, from the discussion of the role of the media in public life and the rifts between the races and sexes to the palpable rage in the clashes between protestors and police. The climactic scenes were filmed at the 1968 Democratic convention, which erupted into a riot following anti-war demonstrations, and have an almost apocalyptic energy to them, a sense at any moment that things will run off the rails – at one point someone behind the camera yells out Haskell’s name to warn him off, a break in the fourth wall that feels truly dangerous. As a political statement it’s brazen and energizing; while the film doesn’t shy away from grappling with the shortcomings of the counterculture movement as a force for change, it’s clear what side Wexler falls on. Our humanity is lost, he seems to say, when we’re all reduced to spectacles for a camera. In 2016, though, with the 24-hour news cycle in endless motion, it feels too late to heed the lesson.

So what can these films tell us, aside from the fact that we’ve always been skeptical of our fearless leaders? Is there any reason to be hopeful about the future when the past is less rosy than we remember? These may be the wrong questions to ask. Stories by their very definition require conflict, or at least some kind of friction, and the political realm offers some of the very best. Even something like 2012’s Lincoln, which takes a more exalted view of civil service, understood this, finding as much to admire in the diligence and compromises it took to ratify the 13th Amendment as it does in the actual victory. As with almost anything worthwhile, the best work done in government is often the hardest. And some of our most timeless art is borne from trying times. Regardless of what comes to pass in November, it’s a safe bet it’ll inspire some great movies.

TRACK MARKS: “Political Science” by Randy Newman

Satire without the potential for danger is pointless. This is something Randy Newman knows all too well. It’s understandable that listeners of his early work (or fans of his later incarnation as a writer of sweet Pixar songs) would take it at face value; they all have the seductive, nostalgic quality of a stripped-to-the-bone pop song. The compositions are so pleasant to the ear that it’s easy to miss the sharpened daggers hiding just underneath the surface. Newman’s genius, though, is that he doesn’t want to wound his audience. He just wants to poke at them a little and see them squirm. A song like, say, “Rednecks,” perhaps his most controversial for its liberal use of the n-word, works because of its intense specificity and matchless evocation of a character’s voice, in that case a Southerner fed up with the smug superiority of the North, which is racist in less overt but no less harmful ways.

“Political Science” was first released on Newman’s 1972 album Sail Away during the height of the Cold War and disastrous final years of Vietnam, but its portrait of a cheerfully ignorant world leader is timeless, as this unfortunate election season has recently proved. As the Republican candidates run a race to the know-nothing bottom, hastened by a front-runner openly advocating war crimes and tarnishing America’s image abroad, the playful irony of Newman’s little ditty has become frighteningly plausible. “No one likes us. I don’t know why,” the narrator gently intones at the song’s opening before deciding a mere two lines later that nuclear destruction is the only option: “All around even our old friends put us down. Let’s drop the big one and see what happens.” It’s a train of thought so simply and nonchalantly followed that it almost sounds like a good idea.

The song then moves into a flippant litany of reasons the rest of the world has it coming. They’re ungrateful, spiteful, Asia’s crowded, South America stole our name so “let’s drop the big one, there’ll be no one left to blame us.” A world made up of just people who think like us would be paradise, right? “How peaceful it’ll be,” the narrator blithely cries, “We’ll set everybody free!” But such bland agreeability has its own drawbacks. After all, once you begin destroying everyone who disagrees with you, how long will it be until that extends to those across the aisle in your own country? In most ways, we’re already there and we haven’t had to drop a big one in 70 years.

When Newman performed “Political Science” on The Colbert Report back in 2006, halfway through Bush’s unearned second term, it seemed like a knowing wink to the show’s left-leaning viewers. I wonder if he’d get the same reaction now. In the damning final couplet the narrator throws up his hands, which has come to seem like the only appropriate reaction to the modern political process: “They all hate us anyhow, so let’s drop the big one now.” We need the song more than ever, because the joke of it isn’t funny anymore.

There’s unfortunately no clips available of the Colbert performance but this one seems close enough:

TRACK MARKS: Best of 2015 – “Downtown” by Majical Cloudz

Our Track Marks feature spotlights individual songs that contributors love. Looking back at the year, we’ve selected some of our favorite songs from albums that don’t appear on our Best Albums of 2015 list.

Adolescent yearning can be unbearable in real life but in art it’s often transcendent. Case in point is the music of Majical Cloudz, which has the intimate nakedness of an aural striptease. At times it’s like listening in on something you’re not meant to hear. As sad as it is romantic, “Downtown” from their sophomore album Are You Alone? (a title whose similarity to a late-night text can’t be accidental) is like a love song for a ghost, an impression bolstered by the starkness of the music video, which alternates between a black and white close-up of singer Devon Welsh, his gaze directed straight at the camera, and counterpart Matthew Otto spinning in what looks like the remnants of a bombed-out city. This ain’t the place Petulia Clark sang about.

Welsh’s voice has the same chameleonic qualities as Ian Curtis, timid one moment and adamant the next, and he puts it to good use here. The song opens with a shimmery electronic instrumental backed by a beat reminiscent of windshield wipers fighting a steady rain, a foggy, hypnotic melody that might float away if not for Welsh’s insistence on remaining in the moment, grasping for something that’s less a place than a state of mind. “Nothing you say will ever be wrong/Cause it feels good just being in your arms,” goes a typical sentiment. Yet the lyrics also look forward to a time when the intensity of these feelings will just be another memory. “If suddenly I die,” Welsh sings with a forthrightness that even those well beyond their teenage years will admire, “I hope they will say/That he was obsessed and it was okay.” Some things will naturally be outgrown and left behind but it only takes the right song at the right time to bring it all back again.

TRACK MARKS: Best of 2015 – “Bored in the USA” by Father John Misty

Our Track Marks feature spotlights individual songs that contributors love. Looking back at the year, we’ve selected some of our favorite songs from albums that don’t appear on our Best Albums of 2015 list.

Artists have been looking back for as long as there have been others before them but few blur the line between past and present with as much flair (and controversy) as Father John Misty, the stage persona of ex-Fleet Fox-er Josh Tillman, which is equal parts Mick Jagger swagger and Harry Nilsson self-loathing. Like any good persona it’s a pliable one, noxiously hostile on one track and swooningly romantic on the next; the best songs on his second record I Love You, Honeybear often sound like a battle between the two, a hardened cynic trying on a pair of rose-colored glasses.

Tillman, you see, got married while he was working on Honeybear and the album is rife with the anxieties that come with making big life choices and devoting oneself to someone else’s happiness. “Bored in the U.S.A.” at first seems like an outlier, a Springsteen-referencing goof in the midst of tormented love songs that turns its gaze within rather than toward another. There’s more than a little of Randy Newman’s D.N.A. in its composition, from the deceptive simplicity of its piano line to the winking irony of the lyrics. (“Save me white Jesus,” he cries at one point.) But it’s of a piece with Tillman’s larger aim, which is to kick up enough dust that you won’t notice the real tears in his eyes.

Like “Born in the U.S.A.” it’s the sort of openhearted satire that invites misconstruing. Lazy listeners of that classic (several of them presidential candidates) heard only the patriotic fervor in Springsteen’s lyrics, ignoring the harder truths they underscored. Here too Tillman seems to be sarcastically calling out the lie of the American dream with such lines as “They gave me a useless education/And a subprime loan/on a Craftsman home.” But as the studio audience laughter begins trickling into the audio the hollow core of his cleverness sinks in. It’s not the U.S.A. that’s the problem but the privileged men who proclaim to be bored with it and believe that alone makes them interesting. It seems a bit counterintuitive for an artistic persona to shill for the rewards of being real. But in the year of the so-called “affluenza teen” it may be too bitter a pill to be swallowed straight.

TRACK MARKS: Best of 2015 – “Sapokanikan” by Joanna Newsom

Our Track Marks feature spotlights individual songs that contributors love. Looking back at the year, we’ve selected some of our favorite songs from albums that don’t appear on our Best Albums of 2015 list.

By this point it would be fruitless to come to a Joanna Newsom record with any expectations; she’s made a career of defying them. It can make her difficult for new listeners to approach but it’s also why she’s one of our most thrilling artists. There are constants throughout her four LPs thus far: the distinctive (some would say unbearable) voice, the ornate instrumentation, the GRE-vocab-level lyrics. Tagged as an elfin maid after her debut The Milk-Eyed Mender, Newsom zigged away from her freak-folk persona by putting out the sort of five-song suite that wouldn’t be out of place in the Renaissance, and her 2015 album sees her forging down another unforeseen path. Borne from the opposite inspiration of her previous record, 2010’s Have One on Me which was a three-disc eulogy for a dying relationship, Divers finds Newsom tackling another kind of darkness: the abstract, contradictory fear of loss that comes with being deeply happy.

This thematic through-line is perhaps least immediately evident in lead single “Sapokanikan” which both begins and ends with references to Shelley’s immortal poem of power’s futility “Ozymandias.” History, as the Trump-ian saying goes, is written by the winners, though Newsom’s not interested in known quantities but what lies underneath; the title is taken from a Native American settlement that, prior to the Dutch colonization of Manhattan, was located approximately in the area known nowadays as Greenwich Village (which is also where, in the Paul Thomas Anderson-directed video, Newsom cheekily frolics.) Unfolding over a vast, unpredictable arrangement that recalls ragtime with a regimental beat, the lyrics weave a tale of empires conquered and chastened, lands recorded and erased, Newsom taking on various personas whose fate was molded and cast aside by greater unseen hands. “Will you tell the one that I loved to remember, and hold me?” she pleads at one point, but there is no answer for her as there isn’t for any of us.

If Newsom is interested in darkness here she’s also consumed by cycles, particularly those imposed by time, which marched on for those before us and will do so again. “The city is gone,” she sings at the song’s end, “look and despair.” But Divers is ultimately a tribute to love manifested as an echo, the final song “Time as a Symptom” cutting off in the middle of the word “transcend.” It’s startling at first but it’s also an invitation to turn the record on again, which begins with the word “sending,” thus closing the loop opened at the end. It’s an artist reaching out her hand to bring you back into her world, and ignore the advance of time a little longer.

Show Me An Anti-Hero: On HBO’s David Simon Series & PBS’s Wolf Hall

In the eventual annals of TV history, 2015 may very well go down as the year the tide finally turned on the white anti-hero protagonist. Which seems appropriate, given that Mad Men wrapped up its last episodes this spring, bringing to a close the story of the man who kicked off the whole trend. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but it can also be the quickest death sentence, as discovered by many shows that attempted to replicate that Don Draper feeling. So rather than continue in this futile vein, some limited series have pivoted to a more critical take on the popular TV archetype. It was there in the first seasons of True Detective and Fargo in 2014 but it found perhaps its most elegant expression yet in two excellent, underseen mini-series that aired this year: Show Me a Hero on HBO and Wolf Hall on PBS.
Continue reading Show Me An Anti-Hero: On HBO’s David Simon Series & PBS’s Wolf Hall

HALFTIME REPORT: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013

With Halftime Report, your good friends at revisit some of their favorite films from the first half of this decade.

There comes a point in all artistic endeavors when the project that one has toiled over must be turned over to the public to do with it what they will. This can have mixed results, particularly when one’s endeavor is ironic or satirical, as many rappers can attest (to take one recent example: Kendrick Lamar, whose song “Swimming Pool (Drank)”, an indictment of alcoholism in the projects, became a party anthem for white bros. And, to be fair to the white bros, it is really catchy, in a lethargic sort of way.) In the realm of film, Martin Scorsese may be one of the most co-opted artists of his time, whether it’s his method or his message. His seminal 1976 film Taxi Driver was condemned on release as a glorification of the violence it abhors and his elegiac, thoughtful religious picture The Last Temptation of Christ was picketed, sight unseen, by Christian groups as blasphemous. Both films are now rightly regarded as classics but suffice to say, the man knows a bit about having his work twisted by consumers. So perhaps he wasn’t surprised by the reception of The Wolf of Wall Street, his twenty-third feature film and one of the higher-grossing of his career.

To be fair to his critics, the movie walks an extremely fine line between inducing rage and adrenaline. While watching it, I shifted how I felt about it from moment to moment; it’s so much fun to experience and yet everything that happens in it is ugly. What might be most infuriating about it is that its central figure, Jordan Belfort (played by a game Leonardo DiCaprio,) is, essentially, a bro-tastic good time guy that’s easy to latch onto. He’s not particularly smart but he knows how to harness the energy in a room and game a vulnerable system. And boy are the United States’ financial institutions vulnerable. This film came out a scant five years after the Great Recession started and depending on what side you were on (or wanted to be), The Wolf of Wall Street plays very differently. Much like Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street before him, Belfort could be seen as either a savior or a destroyer, someone to aspire to or despise. Scorsese, to his immense credit, never plays his own hand openly though if one knows anything about him, it’s not difficult to figure out where he stands. Still, that didn’t stop many viewers from seeing Belfort’s splashy exploits as an endorsement of their own repulsive behavior.

The other major critique of the film was its length but in hindsight that seems purposeful, the rigor of the runtime matching the strenuousness, often amphetamine-aided, of its subject until it feels like a party everyone should have left a long time ago. For those who think of DiCaprio as a mechanical, joyless actor, I highly recommend a YouTube viewing of the sequence where Jordan is on Quaaludes, an incredible feat of physical comedy that acts as a bit of a funhouse mirror to the contorting of his more self-serious performances. By the end you’re practically begging for this prick to finally get his comeuppance but this is America and it doesn’t work like that, as anyone at Goldman Sachs can tell you. In many ways the closing shots are some of Scorsese’s most disturbing: the camera turned back on the audience, gazing on Belfort, now a motivational speaker, in adulatory awe. There are plenty of monsters in Scorsese’s back catalogue but Jordan Belfort may be the scariest because he’s a villain without a moral compass – even the gangsters of Goodfellas had a code – and he knows for most people that doesn’t matter if you’re saying something they want to hear.